Eduardo M. Peñalver ’94, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School, will depart Cornell next year to become president of Seattle University, effective July 1, 2021.
Peñalver will step down as the Law School’s 16th dean – a post he has held since 2014, when he became the first Latino to lead an Ivy League law school – on Jan. 1, 2021 but will remain a member of the law faculty through the spring term. Jens David Ohlin, vice dean and professor of law, will take over as interim dean.
A search committee for a new dean will be co-chaired by Avery August, vice provost for academic affairs, and Alexander Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, the Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“Eduardo has been a terrific dean, colleague and adviser,” Provost Michael Kotlikoff said. “We are all extremely proud of his appointment and know he will be a tremendous president for Seattle University, but we will also miss his friendship and wise counsel.”
The move is a homecoming for Peñalver, who grew up south of Seattle and whose parents and four siblings still live in the area. He’ll be the first layperson and the first person of color to lead the 130-year-old Jesuit Catholic university, which serves more than 7,200 students in undergraduate and graduate programs (including a law school) on its downtown Seattle campus.
“To have the opportunity to go back where I started and serve a Jesuit institution that is an important part of the higher education landscape in the Pacific Northwest was really appealing to me,” Peñalver said. “Because of its Jesuit focus on social justice and public service, Cornell’s ‘any person’ ethic and commitment to public engagement is very strong there as well.”
Though Peñalver was raised in the Pacific Northwest, Cornell and Ithaca have served as his primary academic home, starting as an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences.
He went on to study philosophy and theology as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford, receive a law degree from Yale Law School and clerk for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Peñalver was on the Cornell Law School faculty from 2006-12, pursuing scholarship focused on property and land use, as well as on law and religion. When he returned as dean in 2014, following a stint at the University of Chicago Law School, law schools were facing a decline in applications following the Great Recession – a challenge many colleges and universities are grappling with now due to changing demographics and, this year, the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to navigating a challenging admissions environment, Peñalver said his term as dean has seen the caliber and diversity of incoming Law School students improve each year. The admissions rate has also declined from more than 30% to under 20% for the current first-year class.
Among other accomplishments, he said, fundraising has helped the Law School more than double its spending on financial aid. More than 40% of students now graduate without debt, compared to about 12% at the start of his term. A revamped loan forgiveness program has made it easier for graduates – 97% of whom found full-time employment in positions requiring bar passage in 2017 – to pursue nonprofit and government law jobs.
Fundraising has also helped with the recruitment and retention of law faculty. Under Peñalver’s tenure, the Law School has inaugurated seven new named professorships, a 33% increase.
Peñalver has also overseen the launch of two new degree programs – the LL.M. program at Cornell Tech, and a new online Master of Science in Legal Studies for business professionals. He also expanded the Law School’s clinical programs, establishing the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic, the First Amendment Clinic and the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic. This year, 70% of Law School students participated in clinics that Peñalver recently said represent “an important way that Cornell Law School keeps faith with our founding commitment to public service.”
“Anything the Law School has accomplished during my time as dean,” Peñalver emphasized, “has been a collective effort.” In his message to the Law School community announcing his departure, Peñalver said that “the thing in which I take the most pride as I look back on the past few years is the superb group of people I have had the privilege to work with.”
Peñalver has played a major role in the university’s diversity and inclusion efforts, serving as one of three co-chairs of the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate that released final reports in 2018. He led the Regulation of Speech and Harassment subcommittee.
After reactivating the campus this fall and recruiting its next class, Peñalver said, the Law School is in a strong position and will benefit from a seamless transition to an experienced interim dean in Ohlin, a Law School professor since 2008 and vice dean since 2017.
“Jens has been a key partner for me over the past few years but never more so than over the last six months, as we have adjusted to online and hybrid instruction during this extraordinary year,” Peñalver said. “He won’t miss a beat.”
When it comes time to leave for Seattle next summer, Peñalver said he would miss going to work each day in Myron Taylor Hall, “one of the most beautiful law schools in the world,” as well as his Law School family.
“The Law School community has been my home for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been privileged to have been able to lead it.”